The Undersea World of Elliott Norse

Originally published in Eastsideweek
by Chris Carrel

Few details escape Elliott Norse’s attention as we drive past Microsoft headquarters, negotiating the lunch-hour traffic in his scrappy 1985 Civic. “See this over here,” he says, gesturing toward the partially finished Microsoft buildings rising on the west side of the road. “That used to be a beautiful second-growth forest.”

We turn onto 31st Street and stop for a dump truck leaving the construction site. The morning rain has eased, but the moisture has just begun its long journey downhill. “Look at the runoff over there,” he urges me, pointing at the small latte-colored rivulet running from the construction site onto the road and downhill. “That silt will be carried into a once pristine salmon stream and eventually into the ocean.”

Elliott Norse’s keen eye and knack for drawing connections between seemingly disparate events have served him excellently in recent years. Once derided as a “narrow specialist” in graduate school for his study of an obscure crab species, the marine ecologist has now become an internationally respected authority in several areas who excels at describing the big picture. His unorthodox career has included writing the first definition of the biological diversity concept, and penning the definitive book on the ecology of the Pacific Northwest’s ancient forests.

But now he has turned his enormous energy to a new campaign. Microsoft’s runoff is only one tiny piece of a largely unnoted global crisis, he says, that is occurring in the world’s seas – where pollution, overfishing, the introduction of alien species, and atmospheric change are endangering the planet’s living ocean. Down the street from the software giant’s global headquarters, Norse and his organization, the Marine Conservation Biology Institute, are promoting a new science to protect and restore marine biodiversity. By articulating the ocean’s plight, organizing scientists to examine marine problems in new ways, and stressing the importance of marine biodiversity, they hope to foment what they see as an urgently needed scientific revolution.

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